IN HIS NEW film, The Ladykillers, Tom Hanks plays an eccentric criminal mastermind who plans the perfect heist. Hanks, of course, has built his career on playing honest, everyday people. But he isn't afraid to admit that once, way back in his past, he embarked on a life of crime. 'I went through a kleptomaniac thing when I was a kid,' he says, grinning, but looking embarrassed at the memory. 'I was one of a million punk kids who was shoplifting from the local store. But I got nailed hard, and I never did it again. I had to march back inside and make my apologies. I was so flabbergasted by the humiliation, I've been on the straight and narrow ever since.' Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, the character Hanks plays in The Ladykillers, a Joel and Ethan Coen film, has set his sights a little higher than stealing a few packets of gum from the local store. The professor is an eccentric criminal who has hatched an infallible scheme to rob the loot from an underground casino deep in the Mississippi Delta. Unfortunately, the erudite professor and his gang of hoods are accidentally discovered by church-going housewife Marva Munson. So, the professor tries to dispose of her - but things don't quite go as planned. Hanks says he took the part because he wanted to work with the oddball director brothers. 'The Coen brothers themselves - that's what made me want to make this film,' he says. 'I really wanted to work with them. I didn't know them personally, but I admired their films, especially Fargo, Raising Arizona and O Brother, Where Art Thou? These films show that they're interesting and uncompromising filmmakers. I liked the fact that their sensibilities were all over The Ladykillers. It was a typical Coens piece of work.' The Ladykillers is a remake of a classic 1956 British film that featured Alec Guinness in the Hanks role. The original, directed by Alexander Mackendrick, is one of the darkest films from the genre known as Ealing comedies (so-called because they were produced at London's Ealing studios). The Coen brothers moved the film's setting from London to America's deep south, and changed some of the characters. But they retained the bare bones of the original story. Hanks says he didn't watch the original so he could make the character of the professor his own. 'I have never seen it,' he says. 'As an actor, you never look at another actor's performance and say, 'That's how I want to do it.' It would have been very intimidating to step into someone else's shoes, especially as Alec Guinness gave a classic performance. But I'll watch it now that we're all done with ours.' Hanks says that he wanted to make sure the new version had a fresh approach. 'If it had just been a remake of The Ladykillers, I wouldn't have bothered with it,' he says. 'What would have been the point of that? But I knew that the Coen brothers would take it and make it different, make it their own. The only Ealing comedy I had seen was Kind Hearts and Coronets, and I kept it that way. We had to make sure that what we did was new. It had to come out of Joel and Ethan's heads, not repeat the original film.' Hanks is well known for playing good guys in films such as Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me if You Can, and Forrest Gump. The Ladykillers offered him the chance to play a villain for a change. Yet, although the professor is a villain, he's a charming one, with a dash of kindness. 'I liked the idea of the professor because you can understand his motivations,' says Hanks. 'Most bad guys in movies are just stuck there to oppose the protagonists. James Bond is the good guy, and whoever he's fighting against is the bad guy. That's just not interesting to play. I like movies where the bad guys have a completely understandable philosophy. I like to know why they do what they do. They're still the antagonists to the protagonists, but you can understand their motivations. 'I'm not interested in playing archetypes. My characters are motivated by common things that we can all relate to. In The Ladykillers, the professor is consumed by his infallible scheme to rob some money. He doesn't think he can get caught. It's fantasy, but we can all relate to his excitement about getting away with it.' Hanks likes to play ordinary people - so much so, that's he's sometimes compared to James Stewart. He's never appeared as a tough guy or an action hero - and never will, he says. 'I'm not a particularly imposing physical specimen,' he says. 'But tough guys and heroes seem dull and boring to me. When I went to the movies as a young man, I was looking for myself up there on the screen. I think that's what everybody does. Viewers want to have a sense of, 'I could do that, I could be like that'.' A classic war movie was a big influence, he says. 'When I watched The Great Escape, I wanted to be like Charles Bronson, who plays the guy who digs the tunnel. I always related to ordinary people who were just trying to get by, one way or another.' It's also unlikely that Hanks will ever play a tight-costumed superhero. 'As an actor, there's not much you can do if you're playing someone who can't be killed,' he says. 'It's the same for monsters like [A Nightmare on Elm Street's] Freddie Krueger. You can run them over with steam-rollers, throw them out of planes with anchors around their necks, and they still come back. You know they're not dead, you know they're going to come back, so why not just go home?' The Ladykillers marks Hanks' return to comedy. The actor made his name in light drama and comedy, with films such as Punchline (in which he played a stand-up comic), Big and The Burbs. But the past 10 years have seen him working as a dramatic actor in films such as Castaway. Hanks doesn't like to categorise his films. 'I think that a lot of the films I've been in are both funny and serious at the same time,' he says. 'There was stuff that made you laugh in Catch Me if You Can, and there were even things that were funny in Castaway. I don't say, 'It's time to do a comedy' or 'It's time to do a drama.' I just do the movies I like. I won't pass on something because it's a comedy or because it's a drama. That's not the way I work. 'Most of the comedies coming out of mainstream studios are very overt,' he says. 'They're about kids trying to get laid, or they're parodies of old TV shows. Some of them are very funny. But I'm not interested in that kind of comedy. I like a dramatic angle to be there, too. That's there in this film. If you're working with the Coens, you know that you're going to be diverting a bit from mainstream comedy. I like to be surprised by comedy, and the Coens are able to do that.' This morning, Hanks was up early for an appearance on Regis and Kelly, a popular American breakfast television show. The 47-year-old is casually dressed, and looks fit and healthy and energetic for a man on the promotional trail, which he says he's enjoying. 'After all, one of the reasons I got famous was so that I could sit in stuffy hotel rooms and talk to people like you,' he says, laughing. Hanks says he takes the constant media exposure that stardom brings in his stride. But he admits that the glare of the spotlight does get him down sometimes. 'The concept of glamour is truly a relative thing,' he says. 'It can be very nice to sign autographs and have people follow you around. But it's not so good if you have a really bad head cold and your foot hurts, or you're worrying about the family back home. Fame is a responsibility, and you live up to it and get through it. Hopefully, at the end of the day, you still have your soul left intact.' His main worry seems to be that fame will turn him into a recluse. So, he works hard to move around freely, even if that freedom is sometimes curtailed by being recognised. 'I just make a choice to ignore certain stuff, and that enables me to move around in public,' he says. 'If you have a movie out, you can't be invisible at that time. But if you don't, the attention is focused on the people who have. So, I can move around more freely at those times. 'I choose not to be bothered by the pressures around me. You can choose to disappear and live in a compound or something, but that's not my way. I'm not going to go to Rome and sit in my hotel room to avoid people. I want to walk around Rome, and if they take my picture, well, so be it. So, I can still do all that normal stuff, but it just takes a bit of effort. I don't want to end up like Elvis Presley.' Fame does has its advantages, however - such as US$30 million pay cheques. Is any actor really worth that much money? 'No one's worth $30 million, except cops and schoolteachers,' Hanks says. 'There are some movies out there which just exist for commerce. They're just made to make a lot of money. In which case, I'll take what the market will allow me to take. But now, more and more, there are other ways to see that everyone gets a nice pay day. I'll sometimes make a movie for a very low fee, and if it's a success everyone gets to enjoy that success.' Fame is about more than money, he says. In today's Hollywood, star power can be used to get unusual and interesting projects off the ground. Hanks uses the television series Band of Brothers, which he executive produced, as an example. 'I realise my name means a lot,' he says. 'That means that I have been able to pursue other projects, other creative enterprises which would never have seen the light of day unless I was involved with them - like Band of Brothers, and some other stuff for HBO. I tell them that I'm involved in a project, and that it's a labour of love as well as a commercial enterprise. I can get unusual ideas off the ground that way. So, I'm powerful in a certain fashion.' Although still busy acting and producing, family life comes first these days. Hanks says the most important thing for him is raising his two young children, Chester Marlon and Truman Theodore. That's why he won't be taking on any more directing jobs. 'I'm in my child rearing years, and only when the kids are out will I consider directing again,' says the director of That Thing You Do! 'It's too much work. I'm able to creatively have an input on directors, but to truly direct a film, it's 24 hours a day, every day for a year. I don't want to be away from my family for that long.' That's a typical comment from the actor generally regarded as Hollywood's nicest guy. But is he really as nice in real life as his on-screen characters suggest? 'The thing about being a nice guy in movies is that you're nice all through the film,' he says. 'A movie is only two-and-a-half hours long, so you just get to show the nice side of the character. But everybody gets pissed off sooner or later in real life. It's just one damn thing after another, and you can only take so much.' The Ladykillers opens on June 3.